The Bhagavad Gita's Story of Arjuna & Krishna: The Three Paths to Salvation

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  • 0:01 The Bhagavad Gita
  • 2:03 Karma Yoga
  • 3:02 Jnana Yoga
  • 3:48 Bhakti Yoga
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will focus on the sacred Hindu text of the Bhagavad Gita. In doing so, it will also highlight Hinduism's belief in the Three Paths to Salvation, known as the Karma, Jnana and Bhakti Yogas.

The Bhagavad Gita

Throughout the ages, religions have used myths or stories to help explain or guide the human experience. For instance, the Babylonians had their tales of Marduk, while the Romans passed down the heroics of Romulus and Remus. Like these, Hinduism has its own famous tales. Perhaps the most revered of these is the Bhagavad Gita, the famous tale which explains the Hindu Paths to Salvation.

Although the study of this tale could fill an entire college course, we're going to try our best to summarize it in just a few minutes. Since it is full of many characters, most of whose names would tongue-tie any English speaker, we're going to focus more on its themes than its players. The most important thing for us to grasp is that the Bhagavad Gita tries to weave all of the Hindu paths to salvation into one. Although we'll use the Westernized term 'path,' we could also use the term 'practice' when referring to the different paths. With this in mind, rather than working to remember all of the characters, which will help illustrate these paths, we'll oversimplify by summing the Bhagavad Gita up as a conversation between the god Krishna and his cousin Arjuna.

To set the stage, the Bhagavad Gita begins with Arjuna and his family about to go to war with one another. Although Arjuna has been declared King, many of his family members also want the kingdom. Not wanting to shed his families' blood, Arjuna refuses to fight. Ironically, this is where the god Krishna steps in and tries to convince Arjuna it is his duty to kill his rebellious kinsmen.

In doing this, Krishna (who was really an incarnation of the god Vishnu) explains some major tenants of the Hindu faith, specifically the three paths to salvation, which are:

  1. The Karma yoga
  2. The Jnana yoga
  3. The Bhakti yoga

For the remainder of our lesson, we'll work to understand these three paths. We'll start with the Karma yoga.

Karma Yoga

To English speakers, the Karma yoga is known as the Path of Work. Considered the more practical of all the paths, it is a path of action. In order to be one with the divine, a Hindu believer must act selflessly. In other words, a person should do what is right not because they want to be rewarded, but simply because right is right.

In the story of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is afraid to murder his family because he doesn't want it to come back and bite him. In other words, he's afraid of the consequences of such an action. To nullify his concerns, Krishna tells him it is his duty to restore peace at any cost. If he must kill to do it, then so be it. Having order restored is the greater good and, therefore, more important than fear of the consequences or hope of reward.

Although this seems to go against our modern-day use of the word 'karma,' this acting out of duty without regard to consequence will place someone safely on the path of Karma yoga, the Path of Work.

Jnana Yoga

The next of the three paths is the Jnana yoga, or the Path of Knowledge. Being the most theoretical, this knowledge is not the kind we seek for in modern textbooks or science courses. It's more of a mystical knowledge, a seeking to be one with the universe. It's the sacrificing of one's individuality in order to become one with the divine. Jnana, or knowledge, can only come when a person realizes they are just a part of the cosmic whole.

Again in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna uses this argument to explain why it is permissible for Arjuna to kill his family. Since they are all one with the universe, their death won't really be death; it'll be the shedding of their earthly bodies. Those who grasp this oneness are on the Jnana yoga or the Path of Knowledge.

Bhakti Yoga

The last path of salvation in the story is the Bhakti yoga, or the Path of Devotion. According to scholars, it is the inclusion of this path which gives the Bhagavad Gita its greatest historical significance.

This path requires a sincere and loving connection to the divine. A person cannot merely act out of righteousness or knowledge; one must actually have a deep longing for, and trust in, the divine. Like a sacred love affair, a person must deeply yearn for intimacy with the divine.

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